This year's holiday season is expected to be stronger for retailers, but it will come at a price for them and a bargain for you: They'll have to offer lucrative discounts, often in the form of coupons, experts say.
So it will pay off handsomely if you know retailers' promotion strategies and the most useful online sites for 2010 holiday season gift-giving.
Consumers will be especially price-conscious this year, said Jack Kleinhen, chief economist for the National Retail Federation. 'Retailers are expected to compensate for this fundamental shift in shopper mentality by offering significant promotions throughout the holiday season,' he said. Holiday sales are expected to increase 2.3 percent, which is better than the past two dismal years but shy of a normal year, which would be a 2.5 percent increase, the trade group says. And issuing coupons is among the top strategies to boost sales of such popular gifts as apparel and electronics, according to a federation report.
Here's an early-bird guide to smart holiday shopping with coupons this year.
—Online promo codes: Shopping online can be a great idea, because it's easy to shop for good prices, and the Web provides a wide selection. Gifts are delivered directly to you or the recipient. But don't finish checking out of your virtual shopping cart without hunting for a promotional code, also called a coupon code. You can get free shipping, a percentage off your order or dollars off. The easiest way to find a code is to use a search engine. Query the name of the retailer, and such phrases as 'coupon code' or 'promo code.' You can also visit a coupon aggregator, some of which claim to test codes so that you're less likely to waste time with an expired one. Popular coupon aggregators include RetailMeNot.com and CouponCabin.com. Aggregator CouponWinner.com has a 'coupon scout' that allows you to compare retailer coupon codes side-by-side. For example, if you're buying women's apparel, compare current coupon offers from Ann Taylor, Macy's and Banana Republic.
—Stack coupons: Savvy online shoppers know you can 'stack' coupons — that is, use multiple coupons on the same order. For example, you might use one coupon code to get 15 percent off your order of $100 or more and then another code to get free shipping. The trifecta is stacking coupons on a sale item, if a retailer permits it, said Teri Gault, coupon expert and founder of TheGroceryGame.com. 'I'm always all about deal stacking,' she said. 'Where only one promo code is allowed, put one into the checkout at a time, and see what your final total will be. Then, use the one that saves you the most.'
—Newsletters: Sign up for your favorite retailers' e-mail newsletters, which can contain exclusive offers, such as coupon codes and printable coupons for in-store use, said Stephanie Nelson, founder of couponmom.com.
—Social media: If you really have a love affair with a particular retailer, also 'friend' the store's fan page on Facebook and follow its Twitter posts. Retailers are experimenting with offering exclusive deals through these social media sites.
—Mall and department-store coupons: One little-known trick is to visit the Web site of nearby malls. They often have printable coupons and sales alerts for retailers in the mall, Nelson said. Department stores often have coupons in various advertisements, newspaper inserts and mailers, but it's worth placing a phone call to the department store of your choice to ask about available coupons, Gault said. They'll often tell you if there are. If you can't locate a coupon, ask if they have any in the store for you to use. 'Some department stores will keep coupons at the register to scan for you,' she said. 'So even if you don't have a coupon, it never hurts to ask.'
—Toolbars and plug-ins: Billeo.com offers a toolbar that integrates with your Web browser and helps with shopping, discount codes and bill paying. It will also auto-fill your logins, passwords and credit card information, and keep electronic receipts of purchases. Rightcliq by Visa (http://rightcliq.visa.com) is a new browser tool that allows you to organize your online shopping research in a 'wishspace' and get input from others on it. It also incorporates discounts and offers and helps you check out quicker by storing payment information, including non-Visa cards. Toolbars are also available from dealio.com, RetailMeNot.com and CouponCabin.com, though not for all browsers. A general warning: Some users find toolbars can slow down their Web surfing. You can always uninstall the browser add-ons if you don't like them.
—Combine shopping: While shopping around for good prices is generally a good idea, you might want to combine shopping at a single retailer if it offers a coupon for a certain threshold of spending, say $30 off a $100 order, said Andrea Woroch, a spokeswoman for several deal sites, including couponwinner.com.
—Deal sites: If you start shopping now, you have time to monitor deals and wait for a good one. DealNews.com, for example, monitors and vets offers from a wide range of retailers. It will tell you how good a deal it is, and often, the last time it saw such a deal on that item. Such sites are good when you have a lot of time to shop and when you need gift ideas. 'If you don't know what you want for somebody, you might as well get a deal on it,' said Dan de Grandpre, editor-in-chief and chief executive officer of Dealnews.
You can also monitor daily deal sites that offer a single coupon or gift certificate per day. The most popular is Groupon.com. But supershoppers might shop multiple daily-deal sites using a daily-deal aggregator, such as DealRadar.com.
If you're in the opposite situation — you already know what you want to buy but don't like current prices — you can log the item into a price-comparison site such as PriceGrabber.com. It will alert you by e-mail when it finds a price that meets your target, Nelson said.
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—Apps for smart phones: Retailers are 'expected to leverage new channels — like mobile — to drive sales and provide added service to customers who want to shop anytime, anywhere,' the National Retail Federation says in its holiday sales forecast. Using coupons from your smart phone is a technology still in its infancy. Many smart phone applications are mostly for grocery shopping with coupons. For gift buying, try Yowza, Coupon Sherpa and Target, which is limited to deals at Target. You can also use a variety of smart phone apps to instantly check prices while you are in a store. Amazon.com's recently updated Amazon Mobile app for iPhone, for example, can use the phone's camera to scan product bar codes and deliver competing prices from Amazon, which is known for low prices. It will also give you the product's star rating, letting you know what others thought about it. Nelson warns, however, that some bar code scanning apps she tested, which claim to shop multiple retailers, limit comparisons to only retailers with whom they have a commission relationship. That might not yield the best price.
—Other strategies: 'Retailers have already begun to honor competitors' coupons more than ever before, and even price matching,' Gault said. 'So I expect to see even more of this for holiday shopping. For that reason, even if you don't think they have a policy to honor competitors' coupons, it never hurts to ask.'
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